In this essay, Nannie Sköld illuminates Sweden’s hardening stance toward immigration, and shows how the country’s celebrated welfare system has become a central pillar in the national narrative on migrants and refugees. 

 On the same day in the autumn of 2015, Syrian twin brothers Ahmad and Hasan Hifzy claimed asylum on the same grounds in the southern Swedish city of Malmö. During the following summer, Hasan received the news that he had been granted indefinite leave to remain, freeing him to plan for his high school education and his future. Just days later, Ahmad received news that he had been granted protection for 13 months, meaning that he faces at least the risk of deportation back to Syria in November of this year.

Why the difference in outcome? It’s quite simple: Ahmad’s caseworker had taken a few days longer with Ahmad’s case to make a final decision on his future – this may have been due to something quite routine such as being off sick or taking annual leave. But it made all the difference. During the intervening period, Sweden’s migration policy had been overhauled, meaning that decisions of the twins’ future were made on either side of what was a major policy U-turn. Since 24 November 2015, Sweden has officially been taking a breather from refugees. And in June of 2016, rules on refugees were further tightened. The change was justified by Sweden’s Social Democrat minority government largely out of concerns for the welfare state.

As in the UK, anti-immigrant rhetoric has gained momentum in Sweden. This is partly explained by increasing fears about terrorism. But it also reflects nation-specific narrative frameworks which are used to contextualise and discuss migration. In both Sweden and the UK, assumptions about immigration posing a threat to the host country are long established. But the nature of the supposed threats depends on each nation’s context; the emerging narratives arguably say more about the host country than about the immigrants supposedly being discussed.

In Sweden, debates about immigration are almost exclusively about the threat that refugees are thought to pose to the country’s welfare state. In contrast, discourse about immigration in the UK has concerned Muslim workers, Eastern Europeans, non-white British, asylum seekers, as well as other groups. The issues are often conflated and, arguably, fed into the Brexit outcome. Yet, the assumptions of immigration as a threat has led both countries to develop increasingly restrictive asylum policies. The focal point has shifted from upholding the principles of the Refugee Convention to mitigating an assumed threat.


The word Andrum means ‘breathing space’ in Swedish. At one time the name of a therapy centre in Malmö and a vegetarian restaurant in Göteborg, it now also denotes Sweden’s approach to asylum. The country’s asylum policy has shifted from emphasising the individual’s human right to seek asylum and to have his or her claim fairly considered, to focusing instead on the sustainability of Swedish government departmental budgets and the workloads of the municipalities.

Within the space of a few months, Sweden’s discourse around migration, and the policy changes that followed it, went from regarding refugees with a sense of humanitarian responsibility to depicting them as an innate threat to the motherland.

Over time, the term ‘crisis’ has stopped being used in relation to the plight of refugees fleeing persecution. The word is now increasingly deployed instead to refer to the plight of the Swedish welfare system. The shift in narrative has been accompanied by a shift in policy. ID checks at the border with Denmark were implemented in January 2016 for the first time since 1954. Protection to asylum seekers can no longer be granted on a permanent basis. The new rules for family reunification are among the strictest in Europe.

Within the space of a few months, Sweden’s discourse around migration, and the policy changes that followed it, went from regarding refugees with a sense of humanitarian responsibility to depicting them as an innate threat to the motherland. Hasan Hifzy got humanitarianism; Ahmad Hifzy was considered a threat.


Sweden’s narrative on immigration now revolves largely around the threat to the welfare state. After a tumultuous autumn in 2015, in which over 100,000 individuals sought asylum in the space of three months, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called a press conference to announce: “Regretfully, Sweden can no longer cope with accepting the high number of asylum seekers we accept today. Now we simply need to show that we cannot do any more.”

When Löfven was later asked to explain the government’s U-turn, he said: “When 163,000 people come to Sweden, as they did in 2015, the situation is completely different from what it was before. It is twice as many people as Sweden has ever accepted. At such a time, I stand up for the Swedish welfare state. It needs to work.”

Refugees from Syria arrive at Stockholm Central Station by train through Denmark and Malmo in September 2015. Image: Frankie Fouganthin [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Two claims have driven the argument of refugee immigration as a direct threat to the welfare system. First, that Sweden was running out, or already had run out, of resources and that overworked social workers and other civil servants could not cope. Second, that Sweden could only successfully integrate a limited number of refugees, and that this limit had been reached. Refugee immigration was framed as both an immediate catastrophe and a long-term failure.

The international media echoed – and fed – the doomsday predictions with headlines such as “Europe’s Refugee Crisis Is Now Destroying Sweden”, and “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth”. Prominent academics have also given voice to this argument. Ann Heberlein, Professor of Ethics at the University of Lund, argues that:

“For as long as we had the ability – economic, social, et cetera – to receive [refugees], we would naturally do so. But when we now see that the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions are warning over and over about councils and municipalities not being able to cope economically, we see that social workers have big problems, we need to think about what to prioritise.”

She continues: “It’s not like [we are closing the borders] out of malice. It’s about preserving society in some sense, and about being able to offer a worthy reception.”

Sweden’s narrative on immigration now revolves largely around the threat to the welfare state.

Reflecting on the current shift, immigration lawyer and author Viktor Banke observes that, “Sweden has always wanted to take the humane route, advocate for the humane, but at the end of the day always prioritised the welfare state.” Referring to previous restrictions in Swedish asylum policy throughout the 20th century, he notes: “1938, 1989, 1993, 2015, same story: rather give good help to fewer than worse help to more.” And so, with the justification of the welfare state, Sweden’s asylum policy went from being one of the most generous in Europe, to being amongst the harshest in the EU.

Ursula Berge, socio-political analyst at the union of Swedish social workers, is critical of this change in public discourse. Referring to discussions she has had on this issue with union members, she says, “We thought the debate around this situation in 2015 developed into something very strange. Sometimes our members were used as a go-to scapegoat for closing the borders – because our members, our social workers, were overworked. But they were overworked long before this happened. It is a sector that is extremely de-prioritised, a section of the welfare state that has been systematically cut for many, many years.”

Berge is critical of the ideas put forward by the Swedish government, much of the national media, and commentators such as Ann Heberlein; especially the way they use ‘pressures on social work’ as an excuse for the hardening stance on refugee policy. She explains: “Sometimes we [social workers] consider running a campaign called ‘Not in our name’. You can’t cut back on the right to asylum and the idea of an open Sweden because of our members. Because they didn’t want closed borders!”

With nearly twice as many individuals seeking asylum in 2015 as in the previous year, and the majority arriving within the space of three months, demand for housing, education, and social services put a sudden and marked strain on Sweden’s statutory services.

With nearly twice as many individuals seeking asylum in 2015 as in the previous year, and the majority arriving within the space of three months, demand for housing, education, and social services put a sudden and marked strain on Sweden’s statutory services. Working overtime was, in some professions during certain weeks, inevitable. Budgets were recalculated. Civil servants were moved temporarily between departments according to where the biggest need was at that moment.

This sharp rise in demand for services created a new urgency over the issue of Swedish migration. The drastic pressure put on the welfare system was responded to – by most of the media, portions of the population, and, eventually, the major political parties – with suggestions to drastically limit numbers and to adopt a hardline policy to signal that the situation in Sweden had changed. However, the sense of urgency that was created around migration issues, and the drastic measures that were taken in response, have led to a range of changes in asylum policy that both directly and indirectly undermine the original arguments for overhauling the system.


Concerns over Sweden’s limited resources have been accompanied by the worrying realisation that Sweden has become increasingly segregated and that sections of the population live outside of the realms of the nation. Although segregation in Sweden has increased over the past 20 years, it first became a major political issue in 2015, with a focus on the ‘volume’ of refugee immigration.

A strong majority of the country’s population considers integration within Swedish society insufficient and unsuccessful, and the major issues of concern are housing segregation, inequality between schools, and crime. As rich areas get richer and as newly arrived immigrants increasingly gain access to housing in areas with a high proportion of other immigrants, the social divisions of wealth, academic performance, and access to opportunities grows. Individuals born outside of Sweden are more likely that Swedish-born individuals to be prosecuted for crimes, and the difference can be interpreted for as a consequence of segregation and the social isolation and low socioeconomic status that goes with it.

Refugees and police stand at a refugee camp adjacent to Malmö Central Station, Malmö, Sweden. October 2015. Image: Craig Dietrich [CC BY 2.0]

86 percent of refugees granted asylum are left to find their own accommodation – with 240 of Sweden’s 290 municipalities experiencing a shortage in housing, the majority of those granted asylum thus live with family and friends in deprived areas.

Anna Granath Hansson, a researcher in housing at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, says that, “No one in the [housing] business thinks that Sweden will manage to build the 700,000 homes that the National Board of Housing, Building and Planning estimates will be needed for 2025 – and that assessment was made before the arrival of refugees in late 2015.” Limited housing, and the resulting segregation, has thus been an issue for decades – but it has only became a major political topic in response to immigration.


The major policy changes in asylum regulation that were introduced in November 2015 and June 2016 did more to undermine the initial arguments for policy change than to address them. In the issue of housing segregation, the new policy was at best irrelevant. Similar cynicism could also be levelled at concerns over integration.

It’s sadly ironic: the new regulations that took effect in July 2016 actually make it far more difficult for those granted asylum to integrate into Swedish society. Asylum, which could previously be granted on a permanent basis, can now only be granted temporarily. Once the temporary right to remain expires (after three years in some cases, and 13 months in others) the individual faces the risk of deportation. Furthermore, those who are granted asylum under humanitarian protection – in cases where the individual does not fall under the criteria of the Refugee Convention, but has a recognised need for protection, as is the case with most individuals from Syria – no longer have the legal right to bring their families to Sweden.

It’s sadly ironic: the new regulations that took effect in July 2016 actually make it far more difficult for those granted asylum to integrate into Swedish society.

With a right to remain for a limited time, and particularly for those limited to 13 months, incentives to learn Swedish, enrol in academic programmes, and apply for skilled jobs are understandably lower than they were for those granted indefinite leave to remain. Employers are less likely to employ an individual who will face the risk of deportation within months. Mothers and fathers are less likely to focus on integrating into a new country when their family members are elsewhere and they are unable to be reunited. Lack of integration was one of the major concerns that initially led to calls for a change in Sweden’s migration policy – yet the new regulations create significant new barriers to integration.

Moreover, the new regulations increase the workload for civil servants rather than reducing it. As the number of individuals separated from their families and continuously face the risk of deportation has increased as a result of the policy changes, so has the number of people suffering from severe mental health issues. Not only has the need for psychological support grown, but teachers have reported rapidly worsening academic performance from young asylum seekers and refugees since the new policy took effect.

In what is perhaps the starkest example, the new policy puts significantly more pressure on civil servants at Migrationsverket, the Swedish equivalent of the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Department. As a large number of the 163,000 individuals who claimed asylum in 2015 were granted humanitarian protection, civil servants need to revisit many of these cases after the expiry of the 13 month time-limit.

Swedish asylum policy was overhauled in response to mounting societal and political pressure after 163,000 individuals sought asylum in the country in 2015. Concerns about limited resources and increased segregation led to the Swedish government pronouncing an official need for ‘breathing space’ from refugees – a sacrifice of humanitarian principle deemed necessary in order to uphold the welfare state. It had been decided that Sweden needed to send a signal that times had changed, and that the crisis of concern has now shifted to Sweden’s government resources. In looking at the consequences of the policy changes that followed, the narrative around migration since 2015 seems to say more about Sweden than it does about refugees.

As a consequence of the policy shifts and an accompanying change in the public mood, Ahmad Hifzy, the twin who was unlucky and was only granted permission to stay for 13 months, finds it difficult to keep up his motivation to learn Swedish as he fears being deported back to Syria. His brother Hasan, granted indefinite leave to remain, is unhappy as he cannot imagine staying in Sweden without his brother. He says, “I feel like if [Ahmad] does not get indefinite leave to remain and needs to return to Syria, I will go with him. We are not just brothers, we are twins. I can’t even imagine being without him.”

Nannie Sköld currently works with young people through the Central and West Integration Network ( She has worked with refugee and asylum issues in Scotland, Australia, Kenya, and France. Originally from Sweden, she follows Swedish politics from afar. Contact her at:

Feature image: graffiti in the town of Umeå in northern Sweden. It says: ‘Seriously. There are too many immigrants. Yes [box] No [ticked box] Don’t know [box]. Image: Mathias Klang [CC BY 2.0]